| An anxious England skipper Michael Vaughan watches the proceedings from the dressing room at Galle on Saturday. (Reuters)
Galle, Dec. 6 (Reuters): England’s tailenders defied Sri Lankan spinners during a tense final session to save the first Test on Saturday.
The visitors, set an improbable 323 to win, looked on the brink of defeat at tea on 171 for seven, but then lost just two wickets in 31 overs in the final session to finish on 210 for nine when bad light stopped play.
Gareth Batty (26) and Ashley Giles (17) led England’s rearguard action, batting for nearly an hour in fading light before the former was bowled by Muttiah Muralidharan an hour before the end.
Giles and Richard Johnson, surrounded by a cluster of fielders, survived a further 41 minutes before Johnson played onto his stumps.
Giles, who faced 111 balls and batted for nearly two hours, and last man Matthew Hoggard faced 19 balls before the umpires offered the light with 21 minutes remaining.
Muralitharan followed his seven wickets in the first innings with four for 47 from 37 overs in the second, to finish with 11 for 93 — his 12th haul of 10 or more wickets in 83 Tests.
The final half-hour saw the umpires checking their lightmetres almost every over before England were offered the light, sparking jubilation among the tourists and resignation among the home side and supporters.
Mark Butcher (54) and Paul Colingwood (36) had provided the main top-order resistance after the morning loss of Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe.
Dinusha Fernando started matters with the third-over dismissal of Vaughan, who edged an outswinger to first slip.
Trescothick, aggressive early on, was then bowled by Sanath Jayasuriya for 24 with a delivery that deceived him in the air as he advanced down the wicket.
The breakthrough ended a high-tempo, 46-run partnership with Butcher that had delighted a large contingent of English supporters.
Thorpe (10) also tried to dictate terms against the slow bowlers, slog-sweeping Jayasuriya for an early four and even attempting a reverse sweep.
But Muralidharan, spinning the ball like a top, induced him into a hesitant leg-side heave, the ball ballooning off the leading edge to Chaminda Vaas at mid-on.
Collingwood was fortunate to survive a bat-pad appeal for a catch in the gully that was referred to third umpire Gamini Silva moments before lunch.
Silva ruled that the ball had hit Collingwood’s boot rather than the bat. Playing conditions state that the third umpire can only decide whether a catch is taken cleanly.
He and Butcher, who completed his second fifty of the match, defied Sri Lanka’s quartet of spinners for an hour before Hashan Tillekeratne turned back to Vaas, who broke through in his second over, finding the edge of Butcher's defensive bat with a delivery that held its line.
Next over, Flintoff drove loosely to Tillakaratne in the gully to leave England tottering on 125 for five.
Wicketkeeper Chris Read (14), unable to read Muralidharan’s variations, lived a charmed life before gloving an off-break to Mahela Jayawardene at short-leg.
Collingwood’s three-hour resistance came to an end four minutes before tea as the debutant padded a catch to silly-point.